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article imageU.S. national forests being hurt by marijuana growers

By Joan Firstenberg     Dec 12, 2011 in Environment
Entiat - Outlaw reefer growers are increasingly using parkland because the forests are huge, security is almost nonexistent and the soil conditions are fertile. But the practice is harming National Forest System lands, and the cost to fix it is astronomical.
Marijuana growers who plant pot gardens in National Park lands are doing more than breaking the law with their green thumbs, according to the U.S. National Forest System. They’re ripping out native vegetation In order to clear tracts for their crops, which adversely impacts ecosystems and scares off wildlife.
The website, LiveScience.com reports that some growers drench their fields with toxic chemicals in order to fend off weeds, bugs and rodents.
The U.S. Forest Service's director of law enforcement, David Ferrell testified about this before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control this past week, saying,
"The illegal cultivation of marijuana on our National Forest System is a clear and present danger to the public and the environment. The most disgusting aspect of it is the pollution. They just pour chemicals like nobody’s business ... and they get washed into streams that flow through national parks.”
The U.S. Forest Service reports it has sighted 67 major marijuana-growing operations in national forests in 20 different states, but the agency admits that large plots weren’t detected until 1995.
Parks officials say the increase in security at America's national borders has made pot smuggling more difficult, and may be the fuel for more widespread marijuana cultivations. They say growers include the Mexican cartels.
“The Mexican cartels and other growers began to think to themselves that they could make more money and run less risk if they were to grow it stateside."
The New York Daily News reports that DEA agents have confiscated hundreds of marijuana plants from national forest land near Entiant, Wash.
And officials say even as the forestry service struggles to find illegal pot plots, the cleanup and restoration process once they're located, can cost as much as $15,000 per acre. Hundreds of thousands of federal dollars have already been spent to undo the destruction.
Some experts say the legalization of marijuana could be an answer to this problem.
Warren Eth, a lawyer who wrote a review of marijuana cultivation in national forests says,
“If the country could sit down and look at the damage and the untold billions of dollars that are spent to combat it, perhaps we can come to a conclusion that we don’t want this in our parks. We don’t want to spend billions upon billions of dollars on something that can be regulated and taxed.”
Others suggest legalization is too broad of a fix, and that individual cases should be handled differently. Ralph Wesheit, a criminal justice researcher at Illinois State University says
“Some on both sides of the debate about legalizing marijuana see it as an all-or-none issue — either complete legalization or complete prohibition. We don’t take such extreme positions with alcohol or tobacco, and I’m not sure why it’s helpful to take such positions with marijuana. It is very important to distinguish these very large operations from small ones on a variety of dimensions, including impact on the environment and potential for violence."
Eth says this is not a new problem
"There've always been people who use the parks to do bad things, be it moonshiners or marijuana growers. National parks and forests are vast lands that are sparsely policed. In some areas there is one park ranger for every 100,000 acres. No one can possibly police or patrol that area."
Eth also told LiveScience that pot growers who live near their crops also poach wildlife, including some that are endangered from the area, then leave a carpet of animal carcasses behind.
Ferrell also testified that increasing concentrations of the rat poison warfarin have been detected in a sensitive, and nearing endangered status, mammal called the fisher (Martes Pennanti) in California.
"This poison could be contributing to the fisher's declining population."
These marijuana sites on park lands often pose a danger to park-goers as well. In his testimony, Ferrell explained,
"Many marijuana sites found on national forests are under cultivation by drug-trafficking organizations that are sophisticated and include armed guards, counter-surveillance methods, logistics support and state-of-the-art growing practices. Drug-trafficking organizations present a serious risk to national forest visitors and employees, as individuals are often armed with semiautomatic rifles and handguns. The crops are also protected by "improvised antipersonnel devices," a technical term for homemade land mines."
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